Diocese mourns Irish missionary
By TIM WENZL
Father Eugene P. Kenny, a retired priest of the Diocese of Dodge City, died October 12, 2013, in Wichita. He was 84 years old. He had been a resident of the Priests Retirement Center there since 2002.
Father Kenny was ordained to the priesthood 60 years ago and was remembered with other jubilarians at the Chrism Mass earlier this year, although he was unable to attend.
Bishop John B. Brungardt presided at the Mass of Christian Burial at St. Elizabeth Chapel at the Catholic Care Center in Wichita on Oct. 18. Concelebrants included: Bishops Emeriti Eugene J. Gerber and Ronald M. Gilmore; Father Robert Schremmer, V.G., Msgr. Brian Moore, Fathers John Maes, Lisle Pottorff, Ultan Murphy, Don Bedore, Matthew Kumi, John Forkouh, Anthony Suellentrop, Rene Guesnier, O.S.B., and priests from the Diocese of Wichita. Burial followed at Ascension Cemetery east of the Spiritual Life Center in Bel Aire. In his homily, Bishop Brungardt noted similarities in the missionary service of St. Damien, the leper priest and hero of Molokai, and Father Kenny. “Father Eugene came to the plains of Kansas in the United States 60 years ago. He left homeland and family to preach Jesus to those in southwest Kansas who desired to know and believe in Jesus and His Catholic Church. Those people that Father Eugene served did not have the disease of leprosy, yet they suffered the evil of sin, and needed healing through the Sacrament of Penance. The faithful of the Catholic Diocese of Dodge City needed emotional and physical healing through the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Catholics desired the Bread of Life in the Eucharist. Father Kenny, a gentle and hope-filled missionary, gave 60 years of his priesthood to us. He fulfilled the Gospel: ‘Whoever loses his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me’ (John 12:25).
“Let us thank the Lord for the service, gift, and love of Father Eugene Patrick (“Owen”) Kenny, who left family and homeland to preach Jesus Christ.”
Eugene Kenny was born March 17, 1929, in Ferbane Co., Offaly, Ireland, the son of Thomas and Mary Kate (Gilligan) Kenny. He took his seminary studies at St. Peter’s College in Wexford, Ireland; and was ordained to the priesthood June 7, 1953, by the Most Rev. James Staunton, bishop of Ferns.
Father Kenny, known as Owen, (Gaelic for Eugene) to his close friends, was one of many Irish priests recruited in the seminary for service in Kansas. In a 1993 interview, he spoke of the seminary visit of Msgr. John Cody, then pastor of St. Rose of Lima in Great Bend.
“The war wasn’t too long over and we needed a place go, and Msgr. Cody was the first one who came offering something.” He explained that the seminarians needed to be sponsored by a diocese and if that did not occur, the seminarians might be assigned to “God knows where in the English-speaking world.
“Msgr. Cody said nothing terribly impressive about the Diocese of Wichita, but he offered us a place to go. It is through his auspices we were recruited. After he left, we had to look up Wichita on a map,” laughed Father Kenny. He and other classmates “enlisted” with the Diocese of Wichita.
Sometime following this recruiting trip, the Wichita diocese was divided and the Diocese of Dodge City was established. Bishop Mark K. Carroll agreed to share the recruits with the new diocese for a period of five years as the classes were ordained.
During a 2010 visit to the Priests Retirement Center, Father Kenny explained to this writer how the newly ordained were divided between the dioceses. “They did that at the dining hall of the rectory of the (Wichita) cathedral. I remember that room all right. There were eight of us. We met Bishop Carroll and picked cards out of a biretta. Some say it was Archbishop Strecker’s biretta who was chancellor at the time. The cards said either Bishop of Wichita or Bishop of Dodge City. The four who drew Dodge City were Father (Ultan) Murphy, Father (Andrew) McGovern, myself, and Father Kieran Murray.
“(Msgr.) Pat Leahy, God love him, and (Msgr.) John Cody arrived and took us to Dodge City and we met Bishop (John B,) Franz…and that’s the way it was. I still have the card I drew out of the hat.”
Father Kenny then opened a file, pulled out a card with well-worn corners. “It is very simple, just a postcard. It defined the destiny of a young man,” he said with a hearty laugh.
During the interview Father Kenny spoke about his assignments in the small parishes. “There was no heavy lifting,” he said. “The heavy lifting was our personal situation (the Irish priests), just being away from home, and family and friends. That was the big challenge to survive and see purpose in coming such a long way.”
Father Kenny chuckled when he remembered his pastorate at St. John the Apostle Parish in St. John.
“I followed Father Bill Vogel who was a great initiator of happenings. He had a bus to take school children from St. John to the academy (Catholic school) at Seward. So I inherited this bus operation. I drove that bus, not every day, thank God. We had a driver, but I filled in. These are the extraordinary kind of things one looks back on and just wonders about. But when you are young, you just do.”
Father Kenny spoke about retirement happily - the fellowship of the retired priests who celebrate daily Mass together and then enjoy their noon meal in the common dining room. He spoke in wonder about the computer he received from a friend in New York. “I read the newspaper from Ireland, the Hutch News online; and the Catholic News Service. I follow it a little bit each day. On the radio aspect of it, we (he and his neighbor Father Pat Larkin) listen to football games. The small town radio from Ireland comes right in. Then I can Skype my brother’s place in Dublin. They talk to me so often. It’s extraordinary, just extraordinary.”
Father Kenny recalled his priesthood as “nothing very spectacular, nothing terribly exciting,” yet he truly enjoyed it. “The essence of the thing is the Mass and the spiritual life and the people and being involved in the happenings of life: the weddings, the baptisms and the funerals. It’s been a happy life, thank God, yes, thank God. I can’t say otherwise. It’s been a struggle along the way, but every life is a struggle.”
Father Kenny’s first assignment in the Diocese of Dodge City was assistant pastor at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Great Bend (1953-1958). He served as pastor at St. John the Apostle, St. John (1958-1964); St. Joan of Arc, Elkhart (1964-1969); St. Rose, Great Bend (1969-1972); St. Mary’s, McCracken (1972-1975); St. Bernard’s, Belpre (1976-1989); St. Michael, La Crosse, and St. Joseph, Liebenthal (1989-98). During his pastorate at Belpre, he also served as chaplain at Larned State Hospital. In 1998, Father Kenny retired to Great Bend before moving to the Priests Retirement Center four years later.
Father Kenny had two sisters who entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. Sister Philomena ministered in Ireland; Sister Cecilia served as a missionary in India for 56 years.